Cornelius Vanderbilt was a product of that most insular and self-conscious of New York City cultures, Staten Island, and he made his first fortune by operating a ferry between his island and the somewhat less insular and less self-conscious one across the way, Manhattan. Last night the university he founded won a basketball game on landfill scooped into that very same watershed. Vanderbilt beat Oregon State 64-62 in the “finals” (ha) of the Ticket City Legends Classic at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Brad Tinsley hit the game-winner for the Commodores with 4.5 seconds left.
Vandy is playing without 6-11 senior Festus Ezeli, who’s sidelined by a knee injury, and their allegedly porous defense has been the topic of much discussion. Mark me down as puzzled by the allegations and discussion. Allowing NC State to score 79 points in a 76-possession game, as Kevin Stallings‘ team did in the Legends semifinals, is surely not the end of the defensive world. The Commodores’ one unalloyed defensive weakness, the high percentage of two-point makes recorded by opponents, is currently being offset by excellent defensive rebounding and a fair number of takeaways.
If you must fret about this team I guess you could gaze nervously at their offense, which recorded just 0.82 points per trip in the loss at home to Cleveland State nine days ago, 0.92 points per possession last night against the Beavers, and is shooting 63 percent at the line as a team. Anyway, here are the givens:
1. Ezeli will return, and opponents’ two-point FG percentages will decline.
2. Jeffery Taylor is 6-7, fast, strong, and tenacious as an on-ball defender. Last night from press row Prospectus peep Drew Cannon and I spent entire possessions simply watching Taylor guarding Jared Cunningham. It was a tour de force.
3. Other prominent Commodores, it’s true, won’t make anyone think of the 1985 Chicago Bears, but, Cleveland State notwithstanding, this team’s recent history suggests it can and will score points at a level equivalent to the best offenses in the SEC. This team doesn’t need to be the ’85 Bears. A standard Vandy offense plus Ezeli and Taylor doing what they do on D will be sufficient even if, of course, Stallings can’t come out and say it in so many words.
Vanderbilt was hardly poetry in motion against OSU, but I still came away from watching them thinking this will be the best Commodore team of recent years when Ezeli returns. Then again we should remain alive to the possibility that the ‘Dores, Kentucky, Alabama, and Florida may all be better than they were last year — and better than any SEC team was in 2009. When these top-tier outfits start losing games to each other you’ll hear the usual tropes about toughness and wanting it more, but sometimes fate’s happy updrafts simply place multiple outstanding teams in close proximity to one another. The SEC has ferried itself from the island of measly majors to one populated by more robust leagues with startling speed. Pac-12 take note.
BONUS disclaimer! In welcoming the SEC to a more beastly realm I of course speak of the league’s top tier only, relative to the best teams in other conferences. Top to bottom the largest difference to be found between any two teams in the SEC is likely to be that between Nos. 4 and 5.